A Brief History of Halloween

AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR | Over the years, for a number of reasons, I’ve written quite a bit of material about Halloween. I worked for much of the 2000s for a marvelous website called I-mockery.com, and we were famous for our “Two Months of Halloween.” Every September and October, all content on the site was 100% Halloween-themed. It was a great gig, because I love Halloween and I always have. Add to that I live in Salem Massachusetts—one of our nation’s proudest Halloween Capitals, because a few hundred years ago a major atrocity happened here, which is… you know… spooky? And our tourist-fueled celebration of that atrocity is, by any measure, ghoulish and macabre and very… Halloweeny, right? Sure.

So I’ve got all this old Halloween writing lying around, and if I haven’t mentioned I’m lazy yet, that’s easily explained by the fact I’m lazy. So my editor-slash-old-pal-slash-guy who created the website you’re reading and has so many slashes in his job description you’d think he was wearing the inside out William Shatner Mask in Halloween (You see what I did there), thought, since I haven’t generated any new content in MONTHS, maybe we could DIG UP (I’m doing it again) some of my old Halloween pieces and re-print them here for your enjoyment this SPOOKY, CHILLING, SPINE-TINGLING month BOOOOO!!!

“Boo” as in my unexpectedly typing “Boo” scared you, not… you know, “Boo” like… what a terrible and deeply lazy idea you and your “editor” came up with, we really don’t like it and so we are “boo-ing” you.

And shame on you for thinking that, because just like the good old days before streaming, when you shelled out extra bucks for an ultra deluxe director’s cut, letter boxed version of a crappy video or DVD you already owned, we are giving you BRAND NEW, NEVER BEFORE SEEN extras and insights FROM ME, the author, in the form of introductions which I wrote specifically for this publication. I know. Contain your excitement.

So having given you some context which you may or may not have skipped over the instant you realized what it was, here’s the first (and incidentally the oldest) piece. I honestly don’t know when I wrote the original version. It says 2015 on my WordPress site, but HAH! That’s just the date I put it there ARCHIVALLY, Brrrrr, THAT’S a spooky-ass word! Imagine Vincent Price saying, “A terrifying tale exhumed from our ARCHIVES!!” You feel it. Sure you do. Imagine you blew dust and cobwebs off your monitor before you settled in to read…


BY MAX BURBANK | Ah, Halloween! The Spooky Costume Holiday, the Candy Christmas, the Freeloaders Favorite Celebration! But just what is it actually a celebration of—and just how did this peculiar custom originate? Is it, as some claim, a kind of demon worship? Or is it just a harmless vestige of some ancient pagan ritual? Despite the fears of a small minority of religious extremists and deeply superstitious small town characters in Stephen King novels, all scientists, folklorists, and historians agree: Halloween is indeed Demon-Worship—the fun kind!

The word itself, “Halloween,” like many terrifying words and practices, has its origins in the Catholic Church. It comes from a contracted corruption of “All Hallows Eve.” November 1, “All Hollows’ Day” (or “All Saint’s Day”) is a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints, all of whom died in ways that make hideous car accidents look like a Sunday School picnic. Unless there was a hideous car accident at, or on the way to, your Sunday school picnic, in which case… sorry.

In the 5th century BCE, (“Before The Common Era” as opposed to BC, or “Before Christ” because it’s less offensive to believe it’s “common” to believe in “Jesus”) in Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31. The holiday was called Samhain (sow-en), a Celtic word meaning “New Year” or “Last Day Before the Season in Which You’ll Probably Die of Starvation if you Don’t Freeze to Death First.”

One story says that on Samhain (Sam-Raimi), the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be their only hope for the afterlife. The Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended during this period, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living, so it was a shoe-in for a celebration.

Some stubborn 5th Century Celts clung to the idea that their miserable, diseased, frigid, filthy, short lives were preferable to possession. So on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. (I’m referring to the homes themselves, not the Celts—5th century Celts were already cold and undesirable, despite the fanciful depictions of fire haired, feisty maidens, strapping warriors, and mysterious Druids often found in your finer Dungeons and Dragons-related publications.) They would then dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess. Today, archeologists believe there is strong evidence suggesting that this professed belief in spirit possession during Samhain (Skowhegan) was merely an excuse to get rip roaring drunk and vandalize the property of irritating neighbors.

Probably a better explanation of why the Celts extinguished their fires was not to discourage spirit possession, but so that all the Celtic tribes could renew a sense of community by relighting their fires from a common source, the Druidic fire that was kept burning in the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach (Samhain). Unfortunately, the science of orienteering was poorly developed at best in the 5th Century, and so there was a great deal of argument amongst Druid Priests as to where the exact middle of Ireland was. Many fire-seeking Celts succumbed to hypothermia and died still searching for the Druidic fire, ironically increasing the population of disembodied spirits that would plague the souls of the living on the next Samhain (ham-salad).

By some accounts, Celts would burn people at the stake who were thought to be possessed, as sort of a lesson to the spirits. Other accounts regard these stories as myth. Still other accounts hold that while people were indeed burned at the stake, it was more to relieve the constant boredom of 5th century Celthood, and that the ancient precursors of S’mores were made around the pyre.

The Romans, who new a good boredom-relieving human sacrifice when they saw one, adopted the Celtic practices as their own, minus the part about freezing to death while wandering around Ireland looking for the Druid Fire. Try wearing a Roman steel chest plate in Ireland at the end of October and see if you walk even three feet from a fire, let alone put voluntarily putting a perfectly good fire out to go traipsing off looking for some central fire. So with some tailoring in the first century AD, Samhain (Shania-twain) was assimilated into the Roman festival day honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit, trees, and Pagan Torchin’ Tuesdays.

The thrust of many other Celtic practices also changed over time to become more ritualized. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role, and roasting someone alive was replaced by the more ritualistic practice of maiming with hot pokers.

 Various versions of Halloween were practiced throughout Europe and Russia for the next several years, but never really took off, perhaps owing to the scarcity of affordable spooky costumes and because the only “treats” on offer were liquor and wheat spoiled by hallucinogenic molds and fungi.

The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840s by Irish immigrants fleeing their country’s potato famine. At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses, unhinging fence gates, and terrifying children by dressing up as huge, starving potatoes hungry for child flesh.
 The custom of trick-or-treating for candy is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a 9th-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls’ Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants and the minced brains (believed to be the seat of the “soul”) of debtors, convicted criminals, and Huguenots.

The more soul cakes the beggars collected, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the brain donors. At the time, it was believed that torment of hell for debrained undesirables (particularly Huguenots) could be increased through prayer. In 1892, Pope Cletus the Fifth would declare debraining a heresy and replace “soul cakes” with the more acceptable but less fun “Soul and Broken Glass Bags You May Strike Huguenots With at Will.”

The Jack-O-Lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, a notorious drunkard, trickster, and part-time Huguenot, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down.

 According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because he was a Huguenot, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. Then, while Jack was entranced by the glowing Turnip, Satan bashed his head in, which is where the custom of smashing Jack-O-Lanterns comes from. 

The Irish used turnips as their “Jack’s Lanterns” originally. But when the immigrants came to America, they were ridiculed by other immigrants for their “tiny, red pumpkins.” Soon the Irish caught on that if they were ever to get by in the new world, they would have to make their Jack-O-Lanterns out of pumpkins. And stop drinking so much. And brawl less. And dye their hair and bleach their skin of the hideous freckles rightly feared as “carrier’s smallpox,” and swear up and down they were Norwegian, yah, Norwegian, you betcha.

At left, a 1970s “Planet of the Apes” costume announces itself by saying so on the bodysuit part of the costume. | Photo by Larry Racioppo © 2021

Halloween really took off in America in the late 1930s, when the Garment industry discovered that synthetic Polymers could be easily molded into cheap costumes and masks. Historians of Halloween note that the garment industry was, at this time, “Jew-run.”

The Golden Age of Halloween took place in the early 1970s, when affordable masks and plastic tunics bearing the name of popular icons could be purchased at the now extinct “Five and Dime” (fie-ven-diame). Sadly, the Golden Age ended abruptly in 1976 with the invention of the “fun size” candy bar.

Today, Halloween is once more endangered on multiple fronts. Fundamentalist Christian groups seek to portray Halloween as a recruiting tool for the Satanist Lobby. In fact, apart from royalties paid on Devil costumes and accessories (plastic pitchforks, horns, army surplus flamethrowers), Satanists see little commercial return on their investment.

Suburban soccer moms seek to drain the fun out of Halloween by suggesting “costume parties,” “school parades without weapons or gore,” and, worst of all, “daylight trick-or-treating.” Some social theorists believe that once this demographic has drained a significant number of “fun units” from the holiday, they will us them to power their hyper-drives and death rays directly prior to the enslavement of the human race.

Perhaps most insidiously, modern day Pagans, or “Wiccans” (wih-cahns) insist Halloween is still Samhain (Soduku) and that all non-religious Halloween festivities constitute religious harassment. While this approach offers certain scholarly and legal interest, it completely ignores that modern Wiccans have as much as much actual historical connection with 5th century Celts (Pro-to-hue-gen-awts) as I do with the Negro Baseball League.

So we see that despite the adoption of Halloween as the favorite “holiday” of certain fringe groups, and despite it’s vilification by others, the day itself did not grow out of evil practices—unless you call burning people to death “evil.” It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year, the medieval prayer rituals of Europeans, and the thriving synthetic garment trade pioneered by the Jews. Today, many churches have Halloween parties or pumpkin carving events for the kids, which may well be listed in the Community Activities section of your local paper. Why not check them out and if you like, burn them down. After all, any so-called “church” celebrating Halloween is probably Huguenot, and if not, have no one but themselves to blame for a case of mistaken arson. I’m sorry, identity.


This essay was reprinted, with author’s permission, from Max Burbank’s blog. To access the original 2015 version, click here.


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